Rafsanjani Is No Iranian Reformer

By Michael Miner

This week sparked renewed interest in the 2013 presidential election in Iran. Candidates, real and imaginary, flocked to register ahead of the May 11 deadline. Now it's up to the Guardian Council -- the powerful 12-member body that presides over Iran's electoral process -- to approve or reject their political aspirations. In the meantime, the most influential candidates are already dishing out talking points and conducting some of the most grandiose political theatre outside of the United States.

Enter Ayatollah Akbar Hashmei Rafsanjani, the outspoken former president thought to have fallen out of favor with the establishment despite an active public life. After the 1999 student protests, he led a Friday sermon at Tehran University praising the use of government force in quelling dissent. In 2005, he lost another bid for the presidency to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During the 2009 election crisis he initially ducked the hardest questions being asked by reformists, but would go on to say that Iranians should be treated appropriately and authorities should allow vibrant discussion. In 2011 Rafsanjani lost his post as chairman of the Assembly of Experts to a hardline ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, only to be reappointed to the Expediency Discernment Council by none other than the Khamenei. Suffice it to say, Rafsanjani has cultivated his reputation as the "wily cleric" of Iranian politics: a loyal survivor, faithful to the system of government that affords him influence for as long it secures his interests.

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Rafsanjani's entry into the election posits two important questions that merit serious consideration. First, would Rafsanjani not have entered the election if he did not have the blessing of Khamenei? That is unlikely, as far too much of his wealth and power is tied into the system to upset the delicate balance of power between two of the most influential political families in Iran.

Secondly, is it possible Khamenei consented to such a scenario in the interest of maintaining the status quo? Many, would argue just the opposite -- that Rafsanjani and the reformists who will support him, including former President Mohammad Khatami, pose a threat to the system. Contrary to that notion, the fervent supporters of Ahmadinejad's ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei pose the gravest threat to a carefully orchestrated political order. Khamenei may tacitly support Rafsanjani not out of the hope that he will win, but that he will at least keep the secular nationalists at bay. Should he actually win, the interests of those whom first established the Islamic Republic would be well looked after, and especially the powerful clerical establishment who cemented their authority with the constitutional referendum of 1989.

Political intrigue and heated debate will bring domestic politics to the fore of discussion among Iranians in the coming month. The mainstream narrative suggests Rafsanjani has shaken up the political landscape and will represent a major challenge for hardliners loyal to Khamenei and the system. The question Iranians must ask themselves is: just how shaken up could it possibly be?

Michael Miner is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and a member of the International Society for Iranian Studies.

(AP Photo)

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